Fracking: A new era of abundant energy or just a sign of Tory contempt for the North?

SHALE gas is a fantastic opportunity for the UK. The industry could be worth billions of pounds to our economy, provide more than 60,000 jobs, creating financial security for more hardworking people and their families while also increasing our energy security. This is why we want to get shale exploration moving so we can know for certain how much we can get out of the ground.

An exploratory fracking site like that proposed for Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.
An exploratory fracking site like that proposed for Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.

There is no question that the UK needs natural gas. It meets a third of our energy demand, and we will need it for many years to come. If we carry on the way we are, we’ll be importing 75 per cent of the gas we need by 2030. Geological surveys tell us that there could be significant shale gas resources deep beneath the ground in Yorkshire. If it is there and we can capture it, that gas would greatly strengthen our energy security and economy.

So why do we want shale gas, a fossil fuel, when there’s been so much emphasis on developing renewable energy for the future? There’s a very simple and practical reason. The renewables industry, now and for decades to come, won’t even come close to meeting that demand.

Renewables are forecast to provide 15 per cent of the UK’s total energy by 2020 and 32 per cent by 2035. Even as our reliance on fossil fuels for generating electricity reduces, we will still need gas for heating and cooking in our homes, still need products like soaps, paints and adhesives, still need textiles for clothes, and we will still need the plastics found everywhere from our mobile phones and computers to sterile medical equipment.

I understand that people have concerns about whether fracking is safe, but the UK has more than 50 years of drilling experience and we have the best record in the world for economic development while protecting our environment and people. Our standards are high, and we’ve also learnt valuable lessons from shale projects abroad.

There has been speculation over the last month about the changes announced to planning applications for fracking – suggestions that the Government intends to bypass local democracy and autonomy to force the shale industry on an unwilling public. This is just not true.

First and foremost, you will continue to have a say about whether or not fracking takes place in your area. The new licences announced by the Oil and Gas Authority are not “fracking licences” and they do not grant permission to frack. They only give companies exclusivity over an area of land on which they need to make further applications to undertake conventional or unconventional drilling.

Any company that wants to explore for shale in Yorkshire must apply to the council for planning consent. There is no bypassing this, and local residents and businesses will continue to have the opportunity to make their representations and influence that decision. If the local authority then say no, as they did in Lancashire, the company has the right to appeal, but that is their decision, not the Government’s.

What we do need is to avoid any unnecessary delays to planning applications. They don’t help anybody – not the companies making applications or the local people affected by the result. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark) has now said that he will actively consider calling in planning applications, especially where the local authority takes longer than 16 weeks to come to a decision. This would be judged on a case by case basis, taking into full account the reasons behind the delay.

Councils in Yorkshire should trust that the regulators responsible for shale gas developments will enforce their safety, health, environmental and seismic regulations effectively. There is no need for planners to second guess them, and their decision should focus on the planning aspects of the application. This will help local authorities to make their decision in 16 weeks.

We will ensure that local people, communities and local authorities benefit from shale gas development. Operators will pay communities £100,000 for each exploration well site plus one per cent of production revenue, worth £5m-£10m, to be used as the community sees fit.

Shale gas could be a huge success in this country, and it’s an opportunity that we can’t afford to miss. We want to seize this chance while ensuring that the people of Yorkshire get to have their say and share the benefits.

• Andrea Leadsom MP is Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change.